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Maritime Artistic Creation With Maggie Cao


February 18, 2019 | Sophia Ramos

Assistant Professor, Art Historian Maggie Cao discusses her work on 19th century landscapes and her latest book project on artistic creation in the maritime world of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Check out her latest book The End of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America here.

 

Transcript

Philip Hollingsworth: 

Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and friends at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode, Sophia Ramos speaks with Assistant Professor of Art History, Maggie Cao. In their conversation, Professor Cao discusses her new book, The End of Landscape in the 19th Century America. She also talks about her latest book project exploring artistic invention in maritime cultures during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Sophia Ramos:

Tell me some of the favorite courses you’ve taught. I know we mentioned this morning, the class about materials and I was really interested in that.

Maggie Cao:

Yeah. So I teach mostly courses in American art actually, in the history of American art. But I do do some courses that span beyond that, and the history of materials courses, one of them and the students are actually spending half their time in the maker space on campus, making things out of the materials we study. So when we did a unit on plastic, they actually learned how to make 3D prints and they thought about plastic for as a cheap reproductive material. We talk about older materials as well and materials with a much longer history like glass, which actually dates back to antiquity. But we think about its relationship to technology and to not just to artistic practice, even though that’s my field.

SR: 

Yeah.

MC:

And otherwise, most of my courses are pretty historically grounded. So American art spanning from the colonial period to the middle of the 20th century. Probably my biggest course is a lecture course in that topic.

SR: 

Cool. And do you find that students are really engaged and excited by that?

MC:

You know, I try my best to make history relevant to the present. So I just taught my big lecture course last semester and I did this assignment — I try to push them to be creative, too — so I did a assignment in which they had to select some, pick a painting of some we had studied, and to make a tableau vivant of that painting. So they had to reenact it.

SR: 

Oh, okay.

MC:

This was the kind of 19th-century practice where for fun, people used to get together at parties and things. And instead of playing charades, they would like, reenact famous works of art. So I had students do that in my class. And I was blown away. I mean, I thought they would just treat as a kind of dumb exercise to just kind of please me. Yet they actually were amazing. And they, they- I was challenging them to reenact historical artworks in a way that’s relevant to their lives. So there’s one group that had done, they picked a painting by Winslow Homer, who is a civil war, who is famous for among other things, painting civil war scenes. So he had, there’s a painting that he did of a Confederate soldier standing on a rock, inviting a shot. So he sort of being a kind of chivalrous hero during the war, but clearly in a way that is sort of, you know, he’s like trying to be a martyr. So there’s no like happy ending. And it’s like the moment when he stands up and you don’t know if he’s, if the shot that’s fired in the distance is gonna hit him. And the students who, the group of students that reenacted that piece, turned it into a commentary about gender and sexuality today. So they had one of the young women in the group standing on a pedestal wearing an orthodox, sexualized outfit and then the bystanders were looking at her and looking at their phones. And the reenactment was, in fact, a kind of Instagram page, where the comments were sort of disparaging comments from the onlookers. So it had transformed. It was also kind of scene of martyrdom or something, but completely transformed to something of relevance on campus-

SR: 

Okay.  Yeah, definitely.

MC: 

in the world today, so.

SR: 

Yea that’s super cool.  Yeah. Did you take a photo of the reenactment?

MC: 

Yea they submitted it as their assignment.

SR: 

Oh, that was okay. I see. Okay. Wow, that’s really interesting.

MC: 

Yeah, there was a lot of stuff about social media that came out, you know, a lot of the reenactments dealt with things like technology and social media, politics, kind of polar, rising politics today, things like that.

SR: 

Yeah, I’m sure that came up. That’s really cool. Yeah.

MC: 

It’s really fun.

SR: 

Yeah, that seems awesome. One thing when I was kind of reading and learning about you was that you collaborate a lot. It seems like you’re kind of not only here and locally, but also internationally, seems like you do some collaborative projects. And I was curious if there were any other disciplines or areas of interest that people might be surprised that influence your work in art history or the arts in general?

MC: 

Yeah, that’s a great question. So I would say probably other disciplines that most influenced my work are media studies and the history of science. Those are disciplines that are very interested in the history of technology, and how technologies change the way we think and change the way we communicate. And those disciplines, however, tend not to focus as much on artifacts, like they focus on technologies as artifacts, you know, a typewriter or telephone, but not so much the product of those technologies, which art historians do. That’s our kind of bread and butter, is the artifact of material presence of things. So I’ve been very influenced by those fields and thinking about technology and communication and circulation — those sort of bigger questions — but really dealing with them in terms of material artifacts.

SR: 

So you have a project called New Media in the Age of Sail, which is something I think you’ve worked on previously and you’ll continue with the Faculty Fellowship. Could you just tell me about that project and kind of what led you to it? And what’s it about?

MC: 

Yeah, sure. So this project is looking at the 18th and the early part of the 19th century. And it’s really interested in globalization during this period in global transit, global exchange, exploration. And the question that I’m trying to ask is how this new kind of global connectedness at that time, led to the development of new media. And by that, I’m really referring to a kind of art-historical definition of media, meaning materials or techniques for artistic representation. So within that project, some of the examples of types of media that I look at are whalebone — whale ivory — for instance as a material for artistic practice, paintings on glass that were made by Chinese export painters. So these are really new, sometimes new material, sometimes new techniques that were introduced or brought to greater fruition in this period. And for me, these are really artifacts that deal with the very issue of connecting across space, whether that’s cross-cultural, or managing distance, or translation, something of that effect.

SR: 

Okay. And what’s it like to try to track down these artifacts or to find them? It seems like it might be difficult.

MC: 

It is hard but really fun. So this project actually started because I grew up in the Boston area. And there’s a lot of house museums there that date back to the 18th century because Boston was a center for international merchant exchange, sort of merchant sailors.

SR: 

Yeah.

MC: 

And in these houses and museums that have such collections, you find the strangest things. And so the project really started that way. I was looking at scrimshaw, which is the whale ivory carvings that were done by whalers. And I was always fascinated by that. There were tons of China, Chinese export materials in these collections. So the project really started with the kind of my own curiosity about things that are not written about very often. And since then, it has been quite an adventure, because in tracking down sort of the history — the circulation — of whale ivory carvings, so these were made by sailors onboard whale ships. But what fascinates me about these artifacts is that they also had a, the teeth themselves, were really important in the social lives of South Pacific Islanders, especially in Fiji. And I actually went to Fiji this summer to track down, to find, you know, how these teeth came into Fiji and did they have remnants of their prior life on these whaleboats because they were all the sort of byproduct of whale in a sense. And I found that actually there are lots of examples of these teeth that are essentially a kind of spiritually significant object in Fiji. Many of them had been carved on by whalers before they transformed into this other kind of object entirely. So, I am just, I’m really looking forward to writing this chapter because it’s not just dealing with the kind of cross-cultural discussion of an artifact, but also the constrained relationship it has to economic history. Because they facilitated trade between, you know, merchants, and Fijians and they have a complicated status as a kind of primitive currency in the history of anthropology. So I was really excited to have found these, which, you know, I don’t think anyone knows really, that they were there.

SR: 

I can’t believe you went and found more [laughs].

MG: 

Well not much information, just I was able to see the artifact.

SR: 

Yeah.

MC: 

And even the museum curators didn’t know much about them. They just have a huge collection. So I was lucky that they were so open to sharing.

SR: 

Yeah, that’s really exciting. So yeah, we were kind of touching on like things that you’re really excited about continuing this process. Is there anything else that you’re really looking forward to kind of nailing down this semester?

MC: 

Well, I’m really excited to have feedback from my colleagues in other fields. Because I think my own work goes outside of art history often. And I also just think that the most important academic work tends to be types of work that informs other disciplines or that resonate with the questions that people are asking elsewhere than one’s own field. So, it’s just a really good opportunity to do that in the group, because you don’t often have those kinds of opportunities, conferences and other things just are so often discipline base.

SR: 

Yeah, I get that. Cool. That’s exciting. This is kind of just for me question. I was just wondering, what’s something that you do just to stay inspired generally? I mean, I feel like, you know, people probably often look to you and your discipline, or your field, generally in art and think, Okay, you’re creative, what do you do to stay inspired? Right. And I think that that’s like the answer. But I’m curious because you’re so collaborative. And you now, you’re going to be in a really collaborative, diverse faculty group this semester. What goes through your head when you’re trying to stay inspired?

MC: 

That’s a great question. I actually, I love reading. Especially, I mean I don’t always have the time, but I feel very inspired when I read a really good novel, actually. Because I feel like I’m always working on my writing in some way. You know, the whole, you know, when you’re in school — I don’t know when you start this — middle school, maybe? When they teach you how to write a five-paragraph essay.

SR: 

Yeah.

MC: 

And it’s like, so boring. We’re like really bummed out. Like, this is what writing is: five-paragraph essay? So, I feel like reading novels, especially really complicated novels, has taught me so much about writing. And so I often do that when I have time to feel inspired to write again, which I’m going to be doing, you know, I spent the last probably two years revising and editing my book that just came out. So, I’m really excited to really try it again and so reading good novels kind of the way.

SR: 

Yea. Have you read anything really great recently?

MC: 

Recently, I don’t know, I would say, Well, I can tell you probably my favorite author is Murakami. And because he’s such a complex novelist, and he writes these very experimental novels with tons of different characters, and they’re kind of surrealist almost, and I kind of feel like it’s a really strange but wonderful model for academic writing. And I think some colleagues may find that really frightening to hear but I like the idea of nonfiction and academic writing as something that is multi-threaded and has multiple characters and complex plotlines, and then has some kind of like denouement in the end, in which the argument unfolds. So I kind of try to aim for that in a way. I don’t know [laughs].

SR: 

No, I get it. I totally- that makes sense. And kind of building up that too, what’s a book that changed your life?

MC: 

I don’t think I have a good answer to that. Actually.

SR: 

Yeah. It might just be Murakami.

MC: 

Yeah. He’s a great – I mean I just love his work. I also really like David Mitchell’s work. Who’s very, you know, I think they’re kind of similar in their experimentation with the form of the novel and their sort of character, multi-character, multi plotline almost like jumping around in terms of time and space often. So.

SR: 

Do you like that same style on film?

MC: 

I’m not sure that’s a good question. I’m not really much of a film buff. I have to admit, you know, I watch movies more for just like, the pleasure, pure pleasure. I’m not much of an analyst [laughs]. I’m a little too emotionally invested when I watch a film, like, I’m just not an analyst. Yeah.

SR: 

I’m like that, too.

MC: 

So yeah, I can’t say,

SR: 

Let’s talk about your book.

MC: 

Yeah.

SR: 

So it came out-

MC: 

It came out last summer.

SR: 

Last summer okay.

MC: 

Uh huh. And it’s really exciting. It’s been a long project, long in the making. It’s a dissertation first, and then I revised it. It’s called The End of Landscape in 19th century America. And it’s a book that looks at the fate of the landscape tradition. So in the 19th century United States, if you go to a museum you’ll probably notice that a lot of paintings from that period are landscapes, especially in the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s. And this is because Americans associated landscape with American culture, and it became a kind of most celebrated genre because of its ties to manifest destiny and expansion. And my book looks at the fate of that tradition at the end of the century. So, after the end of the frontier, what happens to paintings of the West, for instance? You know, how do you think about wilderness when, at the end of the century, you know, large swaths of land are being developed. And there are all kinds of environmental interventions that are remaking landscape altogether. So those are the kinds of questions that the book is looking at.

SR: 

Cool. What are your thoughts- is landscape portraiture, something that is still in art, like present-day art? Is that, is it represented still? And yeah, what does that look like now?

MC: 

Yeah, that’s a great question. So. So yeah, I’ve been getting this question, like, your book is called The End of Landscape, but I still see a lot of landscape painting [laughs]. And it’s true. So it’s not that I’m saying, you know, the whole genre dies. But the genre as its, its kind of identity in the middle of 19th century dies. But what does happen to it is it slowly transforms into a more popular art form. So it goes from a kind of very, sort of symbolic and ideal, full of idealism, that sort of high art — almost like history painting had been for many centuries prior to that — into a kind of almost, you know, the landscape gets associated with things like postcards, and cheaper material forms, like print, culture, photography. Things that are easy to transport easy, to pass around. And that still with us today, you know, a lot of wall calendars are landscapes. We think of landscapes are something that amateur artists will tend to do, not to say that there aren’t still fantastic artists who are dealing with the landscape in a more conventional way. But I would say the kind of landscape, the idea of painting a landscape, that kind that, you know, makes us think of the classic form of landscape becomes a kind of popular form.

SR: 

Definitely. I see that. That’s really cool. Thank you for coming today.

MC: 

No, thank you for having me.

SR: 

Yeah, that was really, that was really fun.

[music]

PH:

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